With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in May 2019.
Ever since Google Maps launched its app in 2008, I’ve been using GPS to get around town, and across the country. For a decade, a digital voice from my phone has led me, turn-by-turn, in cities I’m not familiar with and even cities I’ve lived in for years.
But during the past year or so, I’ve become uncomfortable with my reliance on GPS for a variety of reasons.
So I bought a paper map of my fair city of Tulsa, as well as a road atlas of the United States. (Apparently, I’m not alone in this; sales of the classic Rand McNally Road Atlas have, counterintuitively, been rising in the last several years). And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it’s been to use old-fashioned maps to get around town, and country. In fact, I’ve gone to using “analog” maps as my primary method of navigation, only relying on Google Maps as a back-up.
Here’s why I’ve made this navigational switch, and 7 reasons — from the practical to the philosophical — why you might consider putting a paper map back in your glovebox too:
1. Paper maps never lose power or wireless signal.
I’m a regular visitor of southeast Oklahoma. The landscape in that part of the state is beautiful and surprisingly mountainous, but my wireless connection there is atrocious — which means relying on Google Maps can get me lost and definitely has.
While your phone’s GPS app might always be connected to a satellite, you need a wireless connection to access the map and directions it offers you. If you don’t have a wireless connection, you’ll know your GPS coordinates, but won’t have much of an idea of how to navigate to a specific location.
Google Maps has remedied this issue by allowing you to download all the navigation information you need before you lose wireless connection. That will get you to a place that lacks a signal, but how do you then navigate back from there? Not by using Google Maps, that’s for sure. That’s how I’ve gotten lost a few times when relying solely on digital directions.
With a paper map, you never have to worry about losing a wireless connection because you have access to all the information you need right there at your fingertips. What’s more, a paper map never runs out of power like a smartphone can. It’s a reliable, antifragile source of navigational intel.
2. Paper maps are safer and less distracting than GPS.
You’d think that using GPS, and its orally-announced directions, would provide a less distracted mode of navigation. But in my experience, this often isn’t the case.
When I’m using Google Maps, I sometimes become something of a frenzied, irritated mess. I’ve got kids, so they’re often talking and singing loudly in the backseat. When Google barks its directions at me, I can miss what it’s saying over the din of noise, so I have to pick up my phone to read off the turn I’m supposed to take next.
I sometimes too have to make the map larger on the screen, so I can get an idea of what my subsequent series of moves will be, since I don’t want to be stuck in the far right lane of the highway, needing to exit left through bumper-to-bumper traffic. But doing the zoom-out reverse-pinch gesture on your smartphone while driving 75 mph probably isn’t the safest move.
And man, I go into full panic mode when Google says “Recalculating . . .”
“Crap! Where do I need to go now? Do I have to make an unexpected U-turn? Is it taking me on a dumb route that will add twenty minutes to my trip? Let me take a look at my phone here while I’m driving 70 mph in busy traffic . . .”
I’m not alone in finding that the use of GPS makes for dangerously distracted driving.
According to an insurance company survey, among people who described themselves as being “rarely distracted” while driving, just 10% said they emailed or texted behind the wheel, but 77% admitted to looking at GPS navigation. Other research has found that drivers don’t just frequently glance at their phones to check directions; they, like me, often adjust the size of the map on the screen to see both their current location and their destination at the same time. Their glances turn into longer looks — crucial seconds where their eyes are off the road in front of them.
In contrast, when I use a paper map, I typically look at the map before I leave and plot out a route. Then I drive to my destination using the directions I’ve mentally rehearsed in my head, bringing along my map as back-up. If I do get lost, I don’t try to recalculate on the fly; I pull over to a complete stop, pinpoint my current location on the map, plan a new route, and get off again. It beats having a gratingly chipper digital voice ordering me to go this way and that as I try to avoid colliding with other drivers . . . who are also distractedly using GPS.
3. Paper maps can get you to your destination faster than GPS.
Just like you’d intuitively think that GPS would make for less distracted driving, you’d think its computer-optimized navigation would get you to your destination faster than following an old-fashioned paper map. But research conducted by Dr. Toru Ishikawa, a specialist in human spatial behavior, suggests that relying on digital directions can actually slow you down compared to plotting an analog course.
In one study, Dr. Ishikawa and his team found that people who relied on GPS to navigate a city by foot walked slower, made more direction errors, and ultimately took longer to reach their destination compared to people who relied on a paper map or who were shown the route to take on a map beforehand.
Why would this be? Researchers have a few theories.
First, when you offload your navigation to an app, you pay less attention to your surroundings, which prevents you from making more efficient and effective wayfinding decisions based on current circumstances. When you rely on a paper map, you have to pay attention to the real-world environment to make sure it lines up with the map. And because you’re paying attention to your surroundings, you increase the amount of information at your disposal, and having more information allows you to navigate more intelligently, and quickly. It appears GPS puts navigational blinkers on you that can actually slow down your progress.
Second, and this is my own anecdotal observation, GPS directions can take you on unnecessarily circuitous routes. Despite its data-crunching electronic brain, Google Maps sometimes fails to point you in the right direction. I’ve had several instances of driving in rural areas where Google Maps took me on routes that had me staircasing and zigzagging through different country roads. When I finally arrived at my destination, bewildered by the journey I’d been on, and checked a paper map, I found I could have just pulled a U-turn to get on a state highway and straight shot it to my destination in half the time it took using Google’s not-so-smart, algorithmically-generated directions.
A final reason that old-fashioned navigation can be faster than GPS deserves its own point:
4. Paper maps create indelible mental maps.
After they had found their way to their destination, the participants in Dr. Ishikawa’s study were asked to reconstruct a map or provide details about their surroundings. The group that had relied on GPS to navigate did significantly worse at this task than the group that had utilized a paper map.
Because paper map users are paying more attention to the environment they’re moving through, they’re more likely than GPS users to construct mental maps that can be stored away in memory and relied on later for future navigation. Instead of having to enter the address and blindly follow the turn-by-turn directions every time they drive somewhere, people with a mental map get to places faster because they can just get up and go.
I’ve found that though I’ve lived in Tulsa for over a decade, I still have trouble getting around the city without relying on Google Maps, which is troubling, because I can still get around the town in which I grew up — in a time without GPS — even though I haven’t lived there for nearly 20 years. The difference is that in my hometown, I had to create mental maps of the area, whereas in Tulsa, I offloaded that information to a device — which I became completely dependent on to navigate.
5. Paper maps provide a more detailed, expansive, big-picture lay of the land.
The default perspective on a GPS app offers a very egocentric and constricted view of your surroundings: there’s a blue dot in the center of the screen that represents you, and the map is oriented so you can only see maybe a few hundred feet ahead and behind that spot. Unless you zoom out, you won’t get a broader view of your current location and how it relates to your destination. At the same time, turn-by-turn directions keep you from looking ahead and put your focus solely on the next immediate step.
With using GPS, you can really have no idea of where you are — north, south, east, west become pretty meaningless when you’re just following the next discrete direction and then the next. You spend the journey metaphorically looking down at your feet the whole time.
In contrast, a paper map gives you a big picture view of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. With a single sweeping glance, you can see multiple ways of getting to your destination, as well as nearby historical markers, natural features, and state parks. If you want to know what river you’re crossing over, or how close you are to the state line, you can easily ascertain such details.
Maps lend greater perspective to your travels, and really help orient you to the scale and scope of the places you journey through: where you are in a city, in a state, in a country; where areas are populated, where they become rural, how streets and highways are organized and fit together; the lay of the land.
6. Paper maps make you an active, autonomous participant in the skill and art of navigation.
The degree to which we trust digital directions can be a little disturbing.
There have been bona fide cases in which people have driven into lakes and ponds because they chose to heed the orders of their navigation apps, rather than the input of their own senses.
While I’ve never made that big a blunder, there have still been plenty of times in which my gut told me I needed to go one way, but I mindlessly, and wrongly, listened to my GPS instead. I knew the right way to go, but I obeyed the commands of my robot overlord instead.
What’s disturbing is not just that I sometimes acquiesce to an electronic device rather than trust my own navigational sense, but that I’ve felt that sense atrophying over the years from disuse. The more I’ve relied on GPS, the more I’ve lost my spatial awareness, my intuitive feel for how to navigate my environment.
The ability to navigate using your instincts, your well-earned acumen, your perception and observed orientation, is something humans have practiced for thousands of years. It feels good to employ this skill set. It feels autonomous. It takes you out of a position of passivity, and into a role of active interaction with your environment.
That makes analog navigation not only more satisfying, but more fun. Not only for you, but for your children, too. Paper maps are a surprisingly great source of tech-free entertainment for the younger set; they give your kids something to do on road trips that doesn’t involve an iPad. On our last trip down to the Ouachita National Forest, my son Gus sat in the backseat, road atlas in hand, acting as our amateur navigator. He’d let us know which town we’d be hitting next and tell us how many miles we had until we arrived there based on the numbers on the map. He and his sister Scout also flipped through the maps of different states together and mapped out routes for imaginary road trips. I was surprised how long that road atlas entertained them. They enjoyed the incomparable sense of discovery that paper maps provide.
7. Emerging Reason: Paper maps may help stave off dementia, improve your memory, and enhance your ability to imagine the future.
While this reason to use paper maps over GPS has yet to be confirmed, more and more studies are suggesting that our reliance on GPS to navigate the world may increase our risk of dementia and memory loss, and hinder our ability to imagine and think creatively about the future.
In Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, journalist M.R. O’Connor highlights several studies that have come out in recent years that show that depending on GPS to get around may set us up for serious cognitive problems in old age.
There are two basic ways you navigate in the world, and they both use different systems in your brain.
First, there’s spatial navigation. Spatial navigation allows you to create a map in your head based on what you observe in the environment. Once you create this mental map, you can create any novel route to any destination from any starting point. When you navigate spatially, you use your hippocampus, a horseshoe-shaped formation in your brain that also plays a role in memory.
The second way you get around is called “stimulus-response” navigating. With “stimulus-response” navigating, you learn a series of directional cues based on landmarks you encounter in the environment; e.g., “Turn right at the QuickTrip and then turn left at Walmart to get to Bob’s house.”
As long as you see the appropriate stimulus in the environment, you know what step you need to take next to get to your destination. But unlike spatial navigation, people who use stimulus-response navigation can’t come up with new routes because stimulus-response navigation doesn’t build up a mental map that allows you to view the landscape as a whole and play with the course you take through it. Stimulus-response navigating uses a structure in your brain called the caudate nucleus, a part of the basal ganglia which plays a role in habit formation. When you use stimulus-response navigation, it’s more of an automated process, and activity in the hippocampus pretty much shuts off.
Stimulus-response navigation is a lot like how turn-by-turn GPS navigation works, and in 2017, psychologist Hugo Spiers published a study which confirmed that when we rely on this technology to find our way, distinct parts of our brains, including our hippocampi, “go dark.”
Contrast that to taxi drivers in London who have to spend years preparing for “The Knowledge” — a test that measures their ability to navigate the city’s complex roads without the use of GPS. Instead of relying on stimulus-response, London cabbies rely primarily on spatial navigation. When researchers looked at the brains of these taxi drivers in an fMRI, they noticed that their hippocampi are much larger than the average person’s.
While there hasn’t been a study to test whether reliance on GPS actually weakens our hippocampi, a few psychologists, including Véronique Bohbot at McGill University, hypothesize that it might. The brain is much like a muscle. If you use certain parts of it frequently, those parts get stronger; if you don’t, they get weaker. We know that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers get denser because they get more exercise through years of utilizing spatial navigation. We also know that when we use GPS, our hippocampi does not get exercised. So it’s not a stretch to conclude that relying on GPS every day to navigate would atrophy our hippocampi. And because this part of the brain is also responsible for memory, an atrophied hippocampus may also increase our chances of memory problems like dementia and Alzheimer’s in old age. In fact, the presence of an atrophied hippocampus is nearly universal in Alzheimer’s patients.
The possible connection between GPS use and memory loss is strong enough to have caused Bohbot to discontinue using GPS herself. She’s also exploring whether encouraging Alzheimer’s patients to build more mental maps in their head may mitigate memory loss.
Reliance on GPS might not only weaken our memory, but it might also hamper our ability to plan for the future, because we use our hippocampi for that too. When we imagine the future, we have to use our memory. We take past experiences and recombine them in new and novel ways. The hippocampus is what allows us to do this. It not only orients us in space but also time. So GPS might be hampering our ability to plot a course around town . . . and towards our distant destiny.
Again, the connection between GPS use and an enervated capacity to envision the future hasn’t been confirmed. But the link is reasonable enough to add to my other motivations for allowing GPS a much smaller role in my life. I appreciate knowing that when I pull out a paper map, plan my route, and navigate with my wits, I’m giving my old hippocampus a little workout.
Ken Jennings, famed Jeopardy winner and author of Maphead, has called the road atlas a “cultural talisman of the open road.” Try putting one in your glovebox; it may indeed add a little luck to your safety, navigational efficiency, and mental health, as well as a bit of magic to your free-wheeling journeys.
Be sure to listen to our podcast with Maura O’Connor about how navigation makes us human: